Tag Archives: Mifune

Which is more irrational, fear or complacency?

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I consider Kurosawa Akira (1910-1998) the greatest filmmaker ever. Of the 32 feature films he directed, there is only one that I actively dislike (Dodesukaden from 1970, sometimes billed as “Clickety Clack”). The other ones that I don’t like are the version of his adaptation of Dosteovesky’s The Idiot, which Kurosawa believed was destroyed by the studio (“Hakuchi”, 1951), and “Donzo” (1957) his adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play “Ne Dne” (The Lower Depths). One might infer from this that I don’t like Kurosawa doing Russian literary classics (I’m not sure that Vladimir Arsenyev’s Dersu Uzala qualifies as a literary classic, but not only is the book Russian, but so was Kurosawa’s film adaptation of it—which won a best foreign-language film for the then-USSR).

Rather than Russian sources being the problem, I think that Kurosawa’s cinematic exploration of the lumpen-proletariat were (1) unconvincing and (2) boring. Since the screenplay neither added to nor subtracted much from Gorky’s play and I also don’t like Jean Renoir’s 1936 adaptation of the play (as “Les Bas-fonds”), I blame Gorky more than Kurosawa (or Renoir).

Renoir transported the very Russian setting to France of the 1930s. Kurosawa transported it to some unspecified time late in the Edo era (the early 19th century, with the devolution of the Tokugawa Shogunate that included economic stagnation). The film is set-bound as no other Kurosawa film I’ve seen is. The closest the camera gets to escaping from the hovel where the characters live is the opening pan of nearly 360 degrees—which shows that the flophouse is next to a garbage dump (monks are shown dumping garbage directly on it). Three-fourths of the film is inside this flophouse, in which there is a central area and curtained-off individual spaces and in the courtyard between this dormitory and the landlord’s dwelling (into which the camera wanders briefly late in the film).

After that initial spin, the camera does not move much. There are few closeups—mostly mid-range shots of the down and out. I will not attempt to run through the set of stock figures (“characters”), only note that their poverty looks fake (do I mean “stylized”) to me. And none looks badly (or un-)fed. A particular yawner is the cliché of a prostitute with a “heart of gold” (played by Negishi Akemi [Red Beard]). And the drunken revelry rings very hollow to me, and, I think, to the denizens of the “lower depths.”

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I don’t find their antics particularly funny, though Kurosawa considered Gorky’s play very funny. (Gorky himself considered he had written a protest play about desperately poor people; I am certain that he did not intend his play as a comedy, though I am less sure about Mother, his best-known novel, of which I saw a stage version with a comic Olympia Dukakis playing the title role.)

Probably because Mifune Toshirô was cast in it, the most interesting role (or performance) is his Sutekichi , a would-be yakusa, a petty thief with airs of being a serious gangster. Fujiwara Kamatari also manages to wring some pathos (and even an irony or two) out of his part as a failed actor.

There is a very melodramatic finale involving the landlord discovering Sutekichi’s long-running affair with his wife (Yamada Isuzu [the Lady Macbeth of “Throne of Blood”]), his wife discovering that Sutekichi is really in love with her younger sister (Kagawa Kyôko [Sansho, Madadayo]), etc., etc. To put it mildly, the finale of Kurosawa’s other 1947 adaptation of a play (Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” as “Throne of Blood”) is far more memorable. Indeed, the whole film is more memorable both visually and the performances (including Mifune’s).

I guess that Kurosawa wanted the viewer to experience claustrophobia, being trapped with the characters as they are with each other (though they do not seem to share the “Hell is [the] other people” of Sartre’s “No Exit”) and, indeed, seen to have sympathy and even solidarity with each other (for the most part). Kurosawa did not seem to find the one-note characters as irritating as I did. (But he did flatten them by filming with telephoto lenses, but he did that in other films, most notably in “Akahige” (Red Beard), a very long film that I love.

The Criterion edition includes more than half an hour from “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create” and, like “Rashômon,” has a commentary track laid down by Kurosawa expert Donald Richie. Richie is interested in themes, the documentary in technical matters of building and photographing on the single set. (Actually, I found this more interesting than the film itself). Criterion also paired the Renoir and Kurosawa adaptations of Gorky’s play (Jean Gabin played the part Mifune would.)

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Inagaki’s last film, “Machibuse”/”Incident at Blood Pass”

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Inagaki Hiroshi (1905-1980) was a master of samurai films shot in color, best known for the Samurai Trilogy (1954-56) with Mifune Toshirô playing the legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto, and a 1962 adaptation of Chuchingura (47 Ronin). His very last movie, “Machibuse” (“Incident at Blood Pass,” 1970) is the only one of his that I know of that fits within the late-1960s “ronin rebel” subgenre. Mifune starred in and produced it.

The year before he produced and starred in what was at the time the most expensive Japanese movie ever shot, “Furin kazan” (Samurai Banners),* an epic about a ruthless strategist, Yamamoto Kansuke (Mifune) bent on unifying the country (by guile and by force, preferring the former). The warring feudal principalities of the sixteenth century were the time of the greatest prestige of the samurai. Yamamoto seems little concerned with the samurai code (bushido—the way of the sword). His interest is in strategy.

He wants to subdue all the neighboring feudal principalities for a child he could be said to have engineered, a son produced by the feisty, independent-spirited daughter and her father’s murderer, Yamamoto’s lord, Takeda (Nakamura Kinnosuke). It is for this boy (the lord’s fourth son) that Yamamoto seeks to conquer the island (Honshu).

The relationship between Yamamoto and Princess Yu (Sakuma Yoshiko) is complex. His devotion is somewhat puzzling to me. Her ambivalence for him is easier to understand, as is her ambivalence to Takeda.

Two-thirds of the way through the movie, Yamamoto tells Takeda that he must become a Buddhist monk (renouncing sex and shaving his head). This has not the slightest effect of cooling Yamamoto’s bloodletting. Takeda wearies of being a puppet and of Yamamoto’s high-vaulting ambition for the Takeda clan.

Takeda at times wants to rest on his laurels and enjoy his conquests, but when persuaded to move his army (frequently!) by Yamamoto, he is very eager to attack. Yamamoto generally checks these impulses of his sovereign.

Indeed, there is not a battle until after intermission (about an hour and a half in). There is scheming, and murder, and Yamamoto taking over planning the future of Princess Yu and the son she bears as well as the grand Takeda strategy. The movie covers nearly twenty years (1543-1562) roughly half a century before the Tokugawa triumph and unified rule (Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Kagemusha” shows Nakadai Tatsuya playing Takeda and a double who impersonates Takeda after he is killed in a later battle.)

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The movie has a propulsive musical score by Satô Masaru, magnificent color cinematography by Inagaki’s recurrent cameraman Yamada Kazuo. There are gorgeous panoramic vistas and eye-popping costumes (outlandish helmet, very photogenic armor and kimonos). The movie is a lavish production in which the main characters are not lost.

Indeed, though Yamamoto’s psychology is fairly opaque to me, what he is doing is very clear. Nakamura and Sakuma hold their own with Mifune at his fiercest and most passionate.

The movie runs 166 minutes (epic in length, too!). Despite periodic maps and explanatory titles, the military campaigns and battle scenes are somewhat confusing. And there is a crucial development near the end that I think was missing (rather than that I missed it) in a long-building climax (during the climactic battle at Kawanakajima).

When Kurosawa got funding to make his historical epics (or anti-epics) in color during the 1980s—“Kagemusha” and “Ran“— “Furin kazan” was eclipsed. I also find it less satisfying than Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy—and prefer the quirkier rebel ronin movies of the 1960s (and Kurosawa’s take on Macbeth with Mifune, from the 1950s, “Throne of Blood”). Still, I think that “Furin kazan” should appeal to those who enjoy epic war movies with unusual love stories mixed into the bloody brew.

The DVD transfers are pretty good. The subtitles are grammatical and for dialogue distinguish speaker with green or yellow translations (plus some supertitle explanations from time to time). There are no extras.

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* When Yamamoto first appears at the Takeda castle, he says that he was drawn by the Takeda banner, which boasted that the Takeda clan was as swift as the wind (fu), as quiet as a forest (rin), as dangerous as fire (ka), and as immovable as a mountain (zan). The banners of the various armies are very prominent in the battle scenes.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Genre-blending mess: “Princess from the Moon”

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I have no idea what inspired the once-great director Ichikawa Kon to overlay Lady Murasaki’s ca.790 tale of a bamboo-cutter who finds infant an infant girl to raise, Taketori Monogatari, with what looks like plagiarism of shots from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” along with intrusive influences of “E.T.” After two talky hours of romance, it all culminates with Peter Cetera’s “Stay With Me” (in English) under the closing credits.

In Muasaki’s tenth-century original, the bamboo cutter and his wife have not been able to produce children. “Princess from the Moon” (1987) ups the melodrama quotient from the beginning. Instead of finding the girl the bamboo cutter will name Nayotake-no-Kaguya-hime (“princess of flexible bamboos scattering light”) in a stalk of bamboo, the movie’s parents, unable to afford a doctor, have lost their five-year-old daughter and infant girl is breaking out of a golden shell near the daughter’s grave, not far from what looks like the site of a meteor crash (but, we will learn, was the crash of a spaceship from the moon of which she is the sole survivor). And instead of finding gold when he cuts bamboo after adopting the tiny girl (who grows rapidly into Sawguchi Yasuko), he gets rich selling pieces of the shell from which Kaguya hatched.

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Grown up beautiful and the only child of very rich parents, Murasaki’s Kaguya has five princely suitors. The movie Kaguya has only three, one of whom, the most attractive, and the most sincere, royal council official Otomo (Nakai Kiichi (who went on to leading roles in “When the Last Sword Is Drawn,” “Warriors of Heaven and Earth,” etc.), is her choice. Kaguya sets each of the suitors an impossible task (the movie ones more so than the orginal text’s ones). Two of them attempt to fake the marvels they were sent to find and acquire. Otomo finds a dragon, but the dragon destroys Otomo’s boat rather than provide the treasure Kaguya specified. (The dragon destroying the vessel of its hunter was, apparently, footage shot for another movie about a sea serpent. It’

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The 67-year-old Mifune Toshirô played a greedy and lazy bamboo cutter (Taketori), with veteran Wakao Ayako (Konk) playing the wife desperate to believe that the space alien is a reincarnation of her recently deceased daughter. Their roles are pretty flat, though with their new riches they and their daughter (the beautiful but vapid Sawaguchi Yasuko) get clothes to match those of the emperor and his court. Wada Emi (Ran, House of Flying Daggers) designed the costumes, which are easily the most outstanding (in a good way) aspect of the movie. Even for a Japanese movie, the characters have an impressive ability to maintain immobility, whether sitting cross-legged or back on their shins.

As the finale plagiarizes Spielberg, the score plagiarizes Handel. There are some beautifully composed scenes and the striking costumes, but there is no sense of wonder (as in “E.T.”) or any point other than to believe in magic (more specifically, to accept that human conceptions are limited) delivered before the banal and inapt “Stay With Me” and images of bamboo forest waving in the wind for the last four of the 122 minutes of the movie’s running time.

Among many other versions of the tale is a 2013 anime and a 1992 opera by Robert Moran, “From the Towers of the Moon,” inspired by the movie.

And though heavily promoted, “Princess” made less money than “Burmese Harp” had. Though the collapse of the Japanese movie studio business provides some explanation for the decline in quality of Ichikawa movies, I’d attribute it more to the loss of his wife, Natto Wada (1920-83), as a scenarist after some contributions to “Tokyo Olympiad” in 1965

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Samurai Banners/ Fûrin kazan

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Inagaki Hiroshi (1905-1980) was a master of samurai films shot in color, best known for the Samurai Trilogy (1954-56) with Mifune Toshirô playing the legendary swordsman Musashi Miyamoto and a 1962 adaptation of Chuchingura (47 Ronin). His very last movie, “Machibuse” (“Incident at Blood Pass, ” 1970) is the only one of his that I know of that fits within the late-1960s “ronin rebel” subgenre. Mifune starred in and produced it.

The year before he produced and starred in what was at the time the most expensive Japanese movie ever shot, “Fûrin kazan” (Samurai Banners),* an epic about a ruthless strategist, Yamamoto Kansuke (Mifune) bent on unifying the country (by guile and by force, preferring the former). The warring feudal principalities of the sixteenth century were the time of the greatest prestige of the samurai. Yamamoto seems little concerned with the samurai code (bushido—the way of the sword). His interest is in strategy.

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He wants to subdue all the neighboring feudal principalities for a child he could be said to have engineered, a son produced by the feisty, independent-spirited daughter and her father’s murderer, Yamamoto’s lord, Takeda (Nakamura Kinnosuke). It is for this boy (the lord’s fourth son) that Yamamoto seeks to conquer the island (Honshu).

The relationship between Yamamoto and Princess Yu (Sakuma Yoshiko) is complex. His devotion is somewhat puzzling to me. Her ambivalence for him is easier to understand, as is her ambivalence to Takeda.

Two-thirds of the way through the movie, Yamamoto tells Takeda that he must become a Buddhist monk (renouncing sex and shaving his head). This has not the slightest effect of cooling Yamamoto’s bloodletting. Takeda wearies of being a puppet and of Yamamoto’s high-vaulting ambition for the Takeda clan.

Takeda at times wants to rest on his laurels and enjoy his conquests, but when persuaded to move his army (frequently!) by Yamamoto, he is very eager to attack. Yamamoto generally checks these impulses of his sovereign.

Indeed, there is not a battle until after intermission (about an hour and a half in). There is scheming, and murder, and Yamamoto taking over planning the future of Princess Yu and the son she bears as well as the grand Takeda strategy. The movie covers nearly twenty years (1543-1562) roughly half a century before the Tokugawa triumph and unified rule (Kurosawa’s masterpiece “Kagemusha” shows Nakadai Tatsuya playing an older Takeda and a double who impersonates Takeda after he is killed in a later battle.)

The movie has a propulsive musical score by Satô Masaru, magnificent color cinematography by Inagaki’s recurrent cameraman Yamada Kazuo. There are gorgeous panoramic vistas and eye-popping costumes (outlandish helmet, very photogenic armor and kimonos). The movie is a lavish production in which the main characters are not lost.

Indeed, though Yamamoto’s psychology is fairly opaque to me, what he is doing is very clear. Nakamura and Sakuma hold their own with Mifune at his fiercest and most passionate.

The movie runs 166 minutes (epic in length, too!). Despite periodic maps and explanatory titles, the military campaigns and battle scenes are somewhat confusing. And there is a crucial development near the end that I think was missing (rather than that I missed it) in a long-building climax (during the climactic battle at Kawanakajima).

When Kurosawa got funding to make his historical epics (or anti-epics) in color during the 1980s—”Kagemusha” and “Ran”— “Furin kazan” was eclipsed. I also find it less satisfying than Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy—and prefer the quirkier rebel ronin movies of the 1960s (and Kurosawa’s take on Macbeth with Mifune, from the 1950s, “Throne of Blood”).. Still, I think that “Furin kazan” should appeal to those who enjoy epic war movies with unusual love stories mixed into the bloody brew.

The DVD transfers are pretty good. The subtitles are grammatical and for dialogue distinguish speaker with green or yellow translations (plus some supertitle explanations from time to time). There are no extras.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

 

Mifune as the Japanese Cyrano in “Samurai Saga”

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Mifune Toshiro has an out-of-body experience, as he dies amidst falling cherry blossoms in the Japanese adaptation (in color) of “Cyrano de Bergerac” to the time of Tokugawa victory, “Samurai Saga” (Aru kengo no shogai, 1959, directed by Inagaki Hiroshi, who also directed Mifune in “The Samurai Trilogy” and “Rickshaw Man.”

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Most of it is like the latter undistinguished movie about unexpressed and unrequited love, though there is a military campaign in the middle, with Christian (Jirota, played by Takarada Akira) and Cyrano (Komaki, played by Mifune with a thickened but not lengthened nose) fighting against the Tokugawa army.

I found it slow, like “Rickshaw Man.” I don’t remember what I thought of the pace of the Samurai Trilogy, but it was stretched out to three movies! Until the battle of Sekigahara, no one dies in the typically 20+:1 sword fights in “Samurai Saga.” But the Tokugawa army has muskets and mows down enemy troops without engaging in close (swordfighting) combat with Mifune et al.

The return of the vulgar clownish Mifune as the “Red Lion” (Akage)

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Akage” (Red Lion, 1969, directed by Okamoto Kihachi, 3 stars) made for the production company of its star Mifune Toshiro, is a cynical historical comedy markedly inferior to “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” (historical comedies in which Mifune starred) and Okamoto’s pragmatic “rebel samurai” masterpiece “Kill!” and “Sword of Doom, and his overly complicated “Samurai Assassin” (which also starred Mifune).

As a stuttering village boy who returns with a red lion’s mane during the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Mifune is good, as is Minori Terada, who had just starred in Okamoto’s “Nikudan”/”The Human Bullet” as a WWII kamikaze pilot. Here he plays a pickpocket who becomes a lieutenant in a de facto peasant rebellion, following the “red lion” (Mifune’s character, Gonzo, who dons a red fright wig).Untitled 2.jpg

The fights are not very good. The color photography is interesting, though I think the stylization of black and white works better for movies set within the span of the Tokugawa Shogunate, even the very end of it, as here.

 

(BTW, the title seems designed to resonate with the title of the last Kurosawa movie in which Mifune starred, “Red Beard” (Akahige), which had been quite popular. Mifune’s role seems a throwback to the one he played in “The Seven Samurai” rather than to his then-recent restrained ones, including in Okamoto’s 1965 “Samurai Assassin.”

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Kobayashi’s “Samurai Rebellion” (1967)

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Kobayashi’s “Jôi-uchi: Hairyô tsuma shimatsu” (Samurai Rebellion, 1967) is like “Kwaidan” in starting slowly and building to a searing climax, and in being enhanced by a fine musical score by Takemitsu Toru, but if it is a horror movie, the horror is capricious human tyranny, nothing ghostly. (It has a different cinematographer, but another great one, Yamada Kazuo, who shot “Miyamoto Musashi,” the third part of Hiroshi Inagaki’s samurai trilogy, and “Chushingura”/47 Ronin).

After an opening scene of the senior swordsmen testing a new sword, a scene that is fairly mystifying at the time, but in retrospect becomes very important, the first hour or so of “Samurai Rebellion,” looks like an Ozu film set in 1727. That is, it looks like a story of family adjustment in pretty tightly confined space (a traditional Japanese house rather than a modern apartment).

Matsudaira (Matsumura Tatsuo), the daimyô (feudal lord) who was the senior swordsmen from the first scene, sends an underling with what amounts to an order for Sasahara Isaburo (Mifune Toshirô) to marry his eldest son to a woman, Ichi (Tsukasa Yôko), discarded by the daimyo after she bore him a son. Not unreasonably, Isaburo wants to know what she did that she is being banished from the castle, but the emissary will not tell him. He and the wife (Ôtsuka Michiko) he loathes both oppose the marriage, but the son Yogoro (Katô Gô) agrees to do as the daimyo wishes for the good of the family.

The exiled/disgraced woman turns out to be a model wife, even placating her tyrannical mother-in-law. Yogoro comes to love the wife who was forced on him and she him. She tells him what happened to get her banished (in a flashback within a flashback) and vows to stop worrying about the son she left in the castle. Soon she bears a daughter, on whom Isaburo dotes.

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Then, the heir apparent of the clan dies, leaving Ichi’s son as the only heir. It is not proper for the mother of the future daimyô to be married to a vassal, so she is recalled. The clan leaders demand that Yogoro petition the daimyô to take Ichi back. He refuses, backed by his father. This leads to some extremely tense deputations, clan meetings, household bickering, and getting Ichi out of the house by trickery. The formality of the meetings is very striking, but the resistance by Ichi, Yogoro, and Isaburo is unwavering.

The final negotiation in the courtyard of the Sasahara family is amazing (like the finale of “Harakiri”). I don’t think that it is giving much away to say that the long-delayed swordfight occurs. Actually, there are three major fights in the last half hour of the film. Isaburo slays a lot of the daimyô ‘s swordsmen (as Mifune did in a number of other samurai movies). The duel between Isaburo and the other master from the opening scene (Kobayashi’s frequent star, Nakadai Tatsuya, who also played in many Kurosawa films, some with Mifune, and after Kurosawa’s epically stupid break with Mifune, the leading roles in “Kagemusha” and “Ran”) finally comes.

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The restraint of Mifune and Nakadai, their extreme reluctance to fight, are impressive. The visual composition of every scene is, also. As I already indicated, many are in confined indoor spaces, but the outdoor shots are every bit as carefully framed. A messenger’s headlong ride on an isolated road and the outpost guarded by Nakadai are particularly haunting (aided by the music of Takemitsu Toru).

The stylization of encounters in feudal Japan apparently bores some audiences, but I think it is fascinating as portrayed in the films of the great postwar Japanese film-makers. The leading characters in many of the films of Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ichikawa go through hells of various sorts, many of them perishing. “Samurai Rebellion” is not light entertainment. Everybody does not live happily ever after. Indeed, hardly any of the characters have any chance of doing so! The characters here are pushed beyond endurance and rise to heroism in resisting tyranny within rigid rules. Not the special effects but the characters are actions in “Samurai Rebellion” and are awe-inspiring.

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This was the second Kobayashi film I ever saw (the first, which I have not rewatched was the much heralded (Including Oscar-nominated) 1964 trilogy of ghost stories “K[w]aidan”) and the last of his films available on Hulu or Criterion. (There were six more, including the 4-hour documentary on the Tokyo war crimes trial, before he died in 1996.) I think that “Samurai Rebellion” has the best Mifune performance not directed by Kurosawa.

 

©2016, Stephen O . Murray